The Catch-22 of Adventure Travel and the Environment

When it comes to adventure travel, the terms “sustainability” and “eco-friendly” get tossed around a lot these days. In some cases, these are just buzz words in a travel brochure designed to help travelers feel good about themselves before they head off to exotic locations. But for the best travel companies, these are the building blocks of a philosophy that they have followed for years. In some cases, even before eco-tourism was even an accepted term.

If there is one type of travel that has a responsibility to go easy on the environment and take care of our natural resources, it is adventure travel. Many of these types of trips take place in remote locations, far from civilization, often in pristine settings that are seldom visited. But those locations also happen to be the most fragile and easily damaged by eager visitors. That is one of the contradictions of this type of journey. You get to visit some of the most amazing places on the planet, but in doing so, you may be causing more harm than good.

There are a number of high profile examples of this Catch-22 situation. One of the most famous is on Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Environmentalists tell us that the famed Snows of Kilimanjaro are receding at a rapid rate, and that they may be gone completely by 2015. I’ve even seen articles suggesting that we should “go before they’re gone”, urging us to make the famous trek to Kili’s summit before the glaciers have completely melted away. This has led to increased traffic on the mountain, which has definitely had an impact on the environment there, with more trash and human refuse on the slopes. In our rush to see the effects of climate change on Kili, are we having an even more direct and profound impact on that environment there?
A similar story is told on Mt. Everest, where climbers have been leaving behind all manner of trash for years, including spent oxygen bottles, abandoned gear, and more. Even the bodies of mountaineers who have died while climbing are often left where they have fallen. But Nepal has recognized that Everest is an important resource that needs to be protected, and because of that, there has been a concerted effort in recent years to clean up the mountain. Teams of Sherpas have worked hard removing tons of trash from the tallest mountain on Earth, and to ensure that Everest stays clean, Nepal has instituted rules that require all climbing teams to carry their trash back off the mountain or face substantial fines and other penalties.

Across the globe countries have taken similar steps to protect their natural resources which often play a big role in their tourist trade. In Peru, the Inca Trail has become so popular that the government was forced to put a cap on the number of hiking permits that it issues each day in an effort to limit the damage to the environments there. Similarly, the Ugandan government has very strict limitations on the number of visitors to its national parks which are home to the last mountain gorillas. The permits to visit those primates are also quite expensive, with fees going directly to funding their care. This program is often cited as being one of the very best examples of sustainable tourism being used effectively and successfully. In fact, the Ugandan approach has become a model for other countries around the globe.

Of course, much of the responsibility for protecting these environments that we travel through falls on the company we elect to travel with. The good ones will have policies in place that demonstrate that their commitment to the environment is more than just lip service. For example, while traveling in the Amazon earlier this year, I went trekking with guides through the rain forest. At one point, we stopped in a small clearing, and each of the members of our group planted a tree in a ceremony that reaffirmed the importance of the Amazon’s role in our global climate. But in strange contrast, upon returning to our river boat, we were handed bottles of water, a product that is known for not being exactly good for the environment. (For the record, I brought my own aluminum bottle and refilled it from the mostly unused water dispensers positioned around the boat.) Lesson learned. Choose your travel company wisely.

Adventure travel can be very exciting and provide an experience that is unlike most any other kind of trip. But it also offers the potential to do substantial damage to fragile ecosystems. Fortunately, the travelers who gravitate to these kinds of trips are generally outdoor enthusiasts who take an active role in protecting the environment, both on a local and global level. Those kinds of travelers understand the concept of visiting remote places and leaving no trace of their passing. They also tend to reward companies that share those philosophies, and together, traveler and tour operator, can work together to ensure that these amazing locations remain accessible and viable for future generations of travelers as well.